CHA, CHA, CHA, CHANGES — The final race of the Sprint Cup season always represents the ends of some relationships in the NASCAR garage and the beginning of other new ones. Penske Racing is one of the teams making major changes for next season, when Brad Keselowski will move from the No. 12 Penske Dodge Charger to the No. 2 Miller Lite-sponsored car, made famous first by Rusty Wallace and over the last five years, Kurt Busch. In 2011, Busch will drive the No. 22 Penske Dodge with sponsorship from Shell Pennzoil. It’s a bittersweet move for Busch.
“It’s been a great run in the Miller Lite Dodge,” said Busch. “It’s tough to sit here and think of words to describe what it’s meant to me and what it’s meant to the group up in Milwaukee. When I first started to feel it is when I put on the Shell driver’s suit for a photo shoot, getting things ready for 2011. You’re sitting there thinking about the good times, what the Miller Lite car has meant to so many NASCAR fans. To have Rusty run in it for so many years and have a shot at championships and race wins. And for me, just a quick five-year run, it was definitely feeling comfortable at the end.”
Penske is expected to run just two Sprint Cup cars in 2011, with Sam Hornish Jr.’s future uncertain at this point.
MORE CHANGES — Even more uncertain now is the fate of Richard Petty Motorsports, which is supposed to field two cars next season for returning driver AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose, who’s slated to move over from JTG Daugherty Racing. But with RPM in dire financial straits and barely making it through the season, it’s anyone’s guess what might happen to the team in 2011. RPM team defaulted on a $90 million bank loan and reportedly owes nearly $10 million to Roush Fenway Racing, which along with its affiliate companies builds RPM’s cars and engines.
“No matter what happens I’m just proud of everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports,” said Allmendinger. “There’s no secret of what we’re going through right now and it’s a tough time. All the crew guys here and all the guys at the shop listening and watching, they’re amazing people because it could easily tear this team apart. Everybody could be fighting with each other and not want to be here, but everybody is sticking together and fighting hard to go out there and perform. We’ve shown that, no matter what, it’s not gonna get us off our game. We’re just gonna keep getting better as a race team.”
Equally unsure about 2011 is Ambrose.
“We won a few Nationwide races and came close to winning a couple Cup races,” Ambrose said of his tenure at JTG. “That’s the one thing I wanted to accomplish before parting ways. We’re down to the final race of the season. We were leading at Homestead last season when we had a flat tire. Hopefully, we can go back there and have a great showing in our final race together.”
Two of RPM’s current drivers definitely will not be back with the team next season, regardless of what happens. Elliott Sadler will leave to drive full time for Kevin Harvick Inc. in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, while Paul Menard and his crew chief “Slugger” Labbe will move to Richard Childress Racing and that team’s fourth car. Menard’s RCR Chevrolet will carry the No. 27.
RED BULL RISING? — The arrival of Kasey Kahne hasn’t solved Red Bull’s woes — in four starts since leaving RPM, Kahne’s average finish has been 20.75. But what running the final five races of the season does accomplish is giving Kahne a leg up on 2011, when he’s expected to be joined by his RPM crew chief, Kenny Francis. Also expected back for next season is driver Brian Vickers, out since May with blood clots. That would leave Scott Speed as the odd man out at the team after two so-so seasons.
As for Kahne, the time with Red Bull has been beneficial, if not exactly easy. “I think at times it’s been pretty good and at other times it’s been kind of difficult,” Kahne said. “They (Red Bull) do everything a lot different, so it’s been tough at times to pick that up while other stuff has been easy. I’m glad I have these few races to work on it. I think it definitely does help us prepare for next year. They have a lot of good people and good equipment.”
FINISHING STRONG — At the rate he’s going, Joey Logano should finish second in Sunday’s Ford 400 and win the 2011 Daytona. Far-fetched? Probably. But Logano has been on an impressive roll of late, finishing seventh at Charlotte, sixth at Martinsville, fifth at Talladega, fourth at Texas and third last week at Phoenix, a fairly remarkable progression for the second-year driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
“The last races have been such a momentum builder for this team,” said Logano, who has moved from 20th to 16th in points during that time. “I said it when I got out of the car at Phoenix, to finish seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth and third over the past five races is amazing. We really want to finish 15th in points and, to be honest, not too long ago it didn’t really look like we’d be able to do it. Now we are just 17 points behind (Ryan) Newman in that 15th position.”
That has Logano fired up about next season already.
“I’m really proud of the way the Home Depot team has been working together and we’re communicating so well and that’s translated on the race track,” said Logano. “I can tell you this: It is a lot more fun running up front and running with the guys in the Chase. It’s a confidence booster for me and I think for the entire team. Running as well as we are already has me looking forward to next season.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.